Persona is taking a while to get going, but having passed the halfway mark of the two seasons, I’m actually liking it more. It initially looked to be very moody, somewhat repressed, and sprinkled with incongruently-shounen-action in the form of mecha-like summoned creatures.
Then there were some episodes around the middle of the first season that added more personality to the kids, but also seemed to add elements from a lighter sort of series sort of weirdly out of synch with the rest of it. In particular there’s an episode to humanize the man-in-black older brother that seems to be out of a less-serious show. It’s been hammered as hard as possible to fit the realism and mood of the story, but it still feels like something from a significantly broader show hammered into place here. (Then again, the creepy, dispassionate MIB in a bear suit is a memorable image, and I’m a little impressed that Persona was willing to go there.)
On the plus side, apart from that and a couple of a-bit-too-anime-standard other things (obligatory haunted school episode, which is admittedly rather creepy), the strong focus on interpersonal drama and downplaying of monster-summoning has me surprised and pleased. Further, the kids for the most part are doing what they should—trying to figure out what’s going on, experimenting a bit, and—shock—sharing notes. If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching anime, it’s telling everyone else what you know and what you think is going on is a good idea, and keeping things to yourself either leads to tragedy or taking way, way too long to get to the point. Despite rather taciturn characters, for the most part these folks do, with the exception of the older brother, and not talking about anything is sort of his schtick.
In fact, while it’s never once mentioned any kind of moral about teamwork or talking to your friends, it’s done a remarkably good job illustrating (subtly) that when you don’t talk things over and get organized, bad things happen, and when you do, things work out better. Unfortunately for the protagonists, the bad guys are better at talking and teamwork…
I’m also liking the cast a lot. The middle brother is a little low on personality—I’m sort of guessing video game protagonist effect, but hard to say—but otherwise decent, his Nabeshin-relative friend is colorful but believable, the two girls are likable and have some substance to them, and youngest brother Jun is steadily edging into creepy territory.
On the same note, I really like the character designs and character art—even the Nabeshin-lookalike is growing on me. The two girls in particular remind me of toned-down takes on Yasuomi Umetsu’s style, which is a high complement as I think his character designs are some of the most attractive in anything, period (too bad his stories are what they are—best-looking action-porn you’ll ever see).
The backgrounds are beautiful, too—I particularly like the pervasive sense of season—winter, cold and snow in the first season, heat and summer in the second. The character animation isn’t quite as good as the art, but still above average, and the little bursts of action look good.
It also seems to be doing particularly well when it gets into emotional drama—mostly some of the darker corners of the two girls’ lives. An episode casting friendly soul-gnawing in the place of drug addiction is in structure pretty much the classic addiction story, but manages to stay clear of “This week, on a very special episode of Persona…” territory through the combination of raw emotion and a strong overlay of sexuality and cheerfully willing debasement to the addiction theme (it’s portrayed as much as desperate nymphomania as chemical addiction). I also like the fact that the character in trouble is sort of quiet and fragile-seeming, but has been dropping unsettling hints the whole time.
That episode showed that the series can do emotional drama well, which made me wish it had been doing more with the other opportunities—I wanted to see some of the previous plots dug into with that degree of uncomfortable frankness, and less of the vague “something dark and creepy is going on under the surface” moody atmospherics. I’d also like to see a little more discussion and investigation of what all is going on, but that’s probably asking too much in a series trying to draw the mystery out over two whole seasons. (Speaking of which, it’s not often a show makes it well past the first season without mentioning anything specific about several major background points.)
It’s also doing better, rather than worse, with the creepy stuff as it goes on—that’s pretty unusual. Definitely liking that—even the “haunted school” episode twists a standard anime theme into something lower-key, yet still decidedly unsettling. Come to think of it, the hotsprings/vacation episode is so not a hotsprings episode I didn’t even initially realize that it probably qualifies as one.
I’m still not convinced that it needs two seasons to tell its story—there’s an awful lot of atmospheric filler that could have been compressed—but better slow than rushed. Only remaining complaint other than that is I keep wanting a little more chit-chat about what’s going on and a little less exchanging-of-knowing-looks.
So far better than expected overall. Also, firing up a Funimation DVD reminded me of how awesome NIS’s truncated lead-in is—after being forced to watch 10 seconds of unskippable FBI warning, a title switch, a full 30 seconds of unskippable logos, another title switch, and then a trailer (which at least can be skipped), that 12 skippable seconds and then straight to the show is refreshing.
[Addendum: Full review now available.]